The following is a brief selection from the first rough first draft of the beginning of Peter Quinones' upcoming (2016) book Catch The Nearest Way: Fragmentary Writings on The Macbeth Experience. This material Copyright 2014 by Peter Quinones.
Virginia Woolf – according to Jonathan Bate in The Genius of Shakespeare – opined as such: “…the truest account of reading Shakespeare would be not to write a book with a beginning, middle, and end; but to collect notes without trying to make them consistent.” This is very sage advice, and I will try to be faithful to the spirit of it here.
Every so often in the news we see a report emanating from a third world nation – a captain, perhaps, or a colonel, sunglasses on, pistol on his hip, has stormed the palace with his junta and led a coup. We should understand – his great capacity for poetry, eloquence, and introspection not withstanding, Macbeth is exactly this kind of thug.
The amount of literature in existence about Macbeth is unmanageable for any individual. I’m a novice. I’ve done very little reading in the slatternly intermezzo we call Theory; one reason for this is what seems to me to be Brian Vickers’ utter demolition of it in Appropriating Shakespeare.
Most of my reading on the play has been in the type of criticism that I’ll call the High Lofty which, in my judgment, is just as dangerous for studying Shakespeare as Theory is. Essentially Bardolatry on steroids, some of the notable practicioners have been Van Doren, Goddard, Hazlitt, Bloom, Bradley, Nuttall, etc.
The grandmaster of Shakespeare criticism is, in my inexpert view, Spurgeon. I will return to her case for regarding Macbeth as a mean, cruel, and petty man way out of his depth a little bit later on.
My overall view is that, like it or not, in this day and age the most profitable way to get a handle on Shakespeare is to view the many different presentations of a given play that are available on film in conjunction with as much primary and secondary reading as one cares to do. Of course, we know that down through the ages numerous critics have taken the position that Shakespeare is primarily for reading, not for performance. Granted, many of these critics mainly had the theater in mind, but we can comfortably assume that they would hold the same opinion of the cinema. (As an example of this sort of belief, Goddard writes somewhat contemptuously of “some obliterating actress” playing Rosalind in As You Like It and why the “imaginative man” always prefers to read the play rather than see it. Lord!)
This belief is most unfortunate. I say this because one can be the most profound, insightful reader in the history of the Milky Way galaxy and still not be able to intellectualize and visualize with more profit than one can get from a viewing a few different cinematic interpretations of a play and comparing them against each other and against Shakespeare’s words.
Here are two examples, both from offerings of the Scottish play, of the enormous power of the cinema in articulating Shakespeare:
1) In Casson’s 1978 film featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company, the early scenes show one of the three witches broken out in an intense feverish sweat, barely able to walk or speak. She is quite noticeably in this condition; the other two are not. Much later on – most graphically during the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” sequence – McKellen is shown in the same state of heated physical fervor. The visual implication is unmistakable: the same possessing spirit that gripped her body is now gripping his. Whether or not we feel this to be a legitimate interpretation of Shakespeare’s writing is beside the point, which is that it would be extremely unlikely for this impression to be gotten solely from reading.
2) In Jack Gold’s film for the BBC series in the early 1980s the sky, in the scene in which Duncan, Banquo and others arrive at
Inverness, is lit a brilliant and intense orange behind
them. The gate of the castle stands
opened, and the bars of it, sharpened at the ends like swords or spikes, are
filmed in the foreground in such a way that they appear to be coming down right
on the heads of Banquo and Duncan. This
visual evocation of danger and betrayal anthropomorphizes the castle in a way I
don’t think reading alone ever could.
Yet, obviously, reading the plays allows us to compare them with each other, and thus get a sense of Shakespeare as a whole, in a way that viewing films cannot. Nuttall makes an important point in both A New Mimesis and Shakespeare the Thinker that Shakespeare often recycles but never merely repeats himself.
As an example, take some lines from Macbeth that could just as easily have been in Othello – “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” and “False face must hide what the false heart doth know”. Someone with a full command of all the plays, I’m sure, could fill many many pages with examples of such criss crossing. I’m a novice, similar to Colin Wilson with The Outsider.
What is Macbeth about? A small sample of thoughts from The Big Lofty will give us some ideas of what some have thought.
Goddard actually claims that the knocking scene is “a poetical effect beyond the capacity of the stage” and that no actor can possibly properly capture the intended effect of the line “This is the door” that Macbeth utters to Macduff after the murder of
Duncan. This is all to be tied in with an alleged
voice from “the bottom of the universe”.
In his introduction to a Pelican edition of the play Harbage writes that Shakespeare at his sharpest can push up against the boundaries of what is expressible in words and that “Some of the speeches seem to express the agony of all mankind.” In an introduction to a Signet edition Barnet writes that “When one sees or reads Macbeth one cannot help feeling that one is experiencing a re-creation of what man is, in the present, even in the timeless.” Bloom makes the astounding statement that “Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Macbeth, our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable.” And so forth.
All these are outrageous, unprovable sorts of claims that are characteristic of The Grand Lofty. Elaborate metaphysical speculation might make our spirits soar for a while, but in my estimation we do well to be perhaps a bit more grounded. What do the characters in the play actually do? What is the genesis of their activity? What they do in large measure is deliver and receive messages, news bulletins and reports which, in the main, recipients do not question the veracity of and which, in the main, contain true and accurate information. Indeed, the words “report” and “news” and their synonyms appear quite often in the play.
Below I present twenty examples from the drama to support my observation and comment briefly.
Act 1, Scene 2 - Here the bloody man delivers a report – and
actually says “He can report” – about Macbeth’s bravery and courage.
A word about this –
seems to be excessively trusting.
Perhaps this is why he is habitually betrayed by people like Cawdor and
Macbeth. It seems a trifle odd to me
that, for instance, he is relying on the contingency of a chance, accidental
meeting with a wounded soldier for information about how his own army is
performing. Wouldn’t the king have an
extensive network of spies and scouts?
(As Macbeth himself is shown to have once he becomes king.)
Act 1, Scene 2 – Ross arrives to report of Macbeth’s bravery versus
Norway. Again, Duncan
appears to be relying on complete happenstance for this important
information. He doesn’t even recognize
Ross, one of his own thanes!
Act 1, Scene 3 – Here the three witches report to each other. Largely irrelevant.
Act 1, Scene 4 – Here Malcolm brings news to Duncan of Cawdor’s execution. The scene is important because it stresses
consciousness. He mentions his “absolute
trust” in Cawdor – he is about to place the same in Macbeth, with a worse
Act 1, Scene 5 – Macbeth’s letter to Lady Macbeth fills her in on the prophecies of the witches and their subsequent coming true. It’s important to note that the witches’ predictions early on are given full credence while, further on, the importance of their later ones is perhaps not fully appreciated by Macbeth.
Act 1, Scene 5 – The servant brings Lady Macbeth the news that
Duncan will visit that night. Notice that in this brief conversation both
“tidings” and “news” appear, thus strengthening the theme.
Act 1, Scene 7 - “How now! What news?”
Act 2, Scene 2 – Macbeth reports to Lady Macbeth the killing of
Act 3, Scene 1 – Macbeth reveals (to the audience) through his dialogue with the hired murderers that he has reported news of Banquo’s wrongdoings against the murderers to them, the murderers. This is the one place where we might wonder if the news report in question is true or not. It may not be – Banquo does not appear to have been the type for malicious foul play.
Act 3, Scene 4 – The Murderer brings the news of Banquo’s killing and Fleance’s escape to Macbeth.
Act 3, Scene 6 – The unnamed LORD reports to Lennox that Malcolm and Macduff are in
seeking the aid of Edward.
Act 4, Scene 1 – The apparitions deliver predictions which we may consider news by this point in the play, though I acknowledge this characterization might be questioned.
Act 4, Scene 1 – Lennox reports to Macbeth that Macduff has fled to
Act 4, Scene 2 - The messenger arrives to advise Lady Macduff to flee.
Act 4, Scene 3 – Ross brings Macduff the dreadful news.
Act 5, Scene 2 –
Caithness provides Mentieth will
Act 5, Scene 3 – “Bring me no more reports.”
Act 5, Scene 5 - Seyton gives the news of Lady Macbeth’s death.
Act 5, Scene 5 – The messenger reports that Birnam Wood is moving.
Act 5, Scene 8 – Macduff gives the news that he is not of woman born!
Thusly, twenty instances of the motif. This is evidently a world in which delivered messages count for much – or, to be more accurate, at least a play in which they do. It would be well beyond the scope of my knowledge or expertise about medieval
to state categorically that “This society functioned in large measure on the
backs of messengers” although such a statement is probably a good guess.
It is also a likely good guess that much more could be learned about this play from an intensive study of the available literature on the psychology of dictators rather than wanton High Romantic Bardolatry about “unseen forces that shape our lives” or some New Historicist wish fulfillment about the tenets of Elizabethan society or, gulp, Parisian effluvia. I grant you that very few people who are interested in imaginative literature (let’s cling stubbornly to the term) either as a career or a hobby are going to want to put in the time and effort required to slough through much technical work on said psychology, but I would not hesitate to bet that a careful study of the life, say, of Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein would reveal quite a few dispositions to behavior similar to those of Macbeth. (Goddard, to his credit, recognizes the applicability of parts of the play to twentieth century dictators. So does Mary McCarthy in her essay. Rupert Goold sets his film, about which I will have much to say, upon this very idea as a basic operating principle.) If there is any kind of universalism to be found in literature it is in comparative research such as this.
Another important topic to be given attention in the overall study of Macbeth should be, I venture, the psychology of ambition. George H.W. Bush was once asked why he wanted to be President of the
His answer was “For the honor of it all.” This seems to me to be exactly the kind of
ambition the Macbeths exhibit, a kind of directionless, ambiguous desire for
glory – holding a position just for the sake of holding it, with no higher or
more dignified purpose -which is fine, given that there are probably very few
of us who could articulate the meaningful goals behind our ambitions at a
moment’s notice. And again, I understand
that there are most likely not a lot of people who work in the humanities who
are going to be inclined to do reading of this sort (I mean technical research
in clinical psychology) , and we probably don’t have enough information on the
Macbeths’ background, their lives before the play, to definitively state the
motivation for their ambition to be king and queen, but it’s fairly clear to me
that this desire is entirely selfish and comparatively shallow and superficial,
not unlike the desire of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton to be celebrities. Scream if you want, but show me the
differences based on the available literature about the research.
In The Mystery of Macbeth Amneus, despite some rather tortured arguments about various subjects, make the golden observation that when Shakespeare hits upon a narrative problem he often simply ignores it and hopes the audience doesn’t catch it, or else he resorts to poetry. In Macbeth there are two giant problems of this nature. In his film Roman Polanski actually comes up with a logical, though perhaps unintentional, solution to one of these.
The problem is as follows. Early in the play Macbeth and Banquo, on their way to Forres, stumble upon the witches on the blasted heath. The witches ambush them, speak for a short while, and then vanish into the air. Later, Macbeth wishes to consult with them a second time. How does he know where to find them? I may be wrong, and I apologize if I am, but as far as I can see Shakespeare doesn’t tell us how Macbeth knows where they are. The fact that he does find them is a glaring example of plot contrivance. Polanski gets around this by having Macbeth and Banquo stumble upon the witches’ lair on the trek to Forres – they actually see where the witches “live”. (Amusingly, one of the witches is brushing another’s hair as Macbeth and Banquo approach.) Now, it is necessary for Polanski to show us the lair due to the little twist he throws in in the last seconds of his film, but it solves the earlier problem nonetheless – Macbeth is given a landmark with which to work.
Here’s a second problem of the narrative: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plot to kill
Duncan so that Macbeth
may ascend to throne. However, Macbeth
is not properly the next in line – Malcolm is.
Yet, in the course of their planning, the Macbeths make no provisions
whatsoever for this inconvenience. They simply plow forward as though Macbeth
is the rightful successor to Duncan. Of course, Malcolm flees and so the point as
a matter of practicality is made moot, but this is just a happy
coincidence. How might the play be
different if, upon hearing of his father’s death, Malcolm had said “Well, let’s
start making the arrangements for my coronation right after dad’s funeral”?
Act 1, Scene 1, of course establishes the eerie tone of the play. As happens in almost all celluloid Shakespeare, Polanski cuts the original text to ribbons in order to suit his purposes.
“I come, Graymalkin.” “Paddock calls.” “Anon.” To a diehard purist the cutting of these lines may represent a cardinal sin; to someone acquainted with, but not totally obsessed by, the play it may or may not even be noticed; and to someone counting this film as their first exposure to Macbeth it obviously won’t matter very much at all. Polanski not only cuts the dialogue - he rearranges it and moves it around in spots as well. Here, the first words the witches speak in this scene are “Fair is foul…” etc., which in the scene as Shakespeare wrote it are the last words they say. It’s not an effective choice. The difference between having a character ask the question “When shall we three meet again?” as the leadoff speech on the one hand and having three characters chant a slogan in unison on the other is actually monumental. In the first case we might immediately think things like, Oh, they meet regularly. Oh, their preferred meeting conditions are thunder, lightning and rain and not pleasant beach days that are eighty degrees and sunny. Oh, I wonder why they meet anyway, and so on. Hearing them chant a song doesn’t produce this kind of reaction. Shakespeare’s original order is much more effective.
That said, the opening shots of a beach locale changing colors – first red, then brownish-gray, then blue, with seagulls singing overhead, establish the undeniable visual beauty of the film that Polanksi and his cinematographer Gil Taylor maintain throughout. The three weird ones walk into the frame from the left, pushing a little cart along in the sand. They stop, kneel, dig in the sand, and bury a severed human hand with a dagger positioned in it, as well as a noose, in the cool wet earth. They quickly make a little grave out of this, pouring potions over it and spitting. The few lines of dialogue are spoken by only two; the youngest, most “attractive” one doesn’t speak at all (she is the one who later flashes her female parts at Macbeth and Banquo after the first prophecies are delivered). Here they speak calmly, conversationally, almost casually, something they do not do in the other three films I am going to discuss here. The wheels of their cart squeak as they go off down the shoreline, and then the screen goes blank as the credits begin to roll against the background noise of the battle where Macbeth unseams Macdonwald.
It isn’t easy for me to assess whether or not this clip establishes the mood Shakespeare had in mind for this opening scene. (Also, we must never forget the personal circumstances under which Polanski was making this film.)
In Shakespeare Van Doren wrote “Darkness prevails because the witches, whom Banquo calls its instruments, have willed to produce it. But Macbeth is its instrument too, as well as its victim. And the weird sisters no less than he are instruments of an evil that employs them both and has roots running further into darkness than the mind can guess.” Employs them for what purpose? To kill
Duncan? Is it that evil employs the sisters to kill Duncan and they subcontract
the work out to Macbeth? Or is just that
evil desires to produce random general mayhem with no specific targets? What is this evil, anyway? What kind of ontological status does it
have? What kind of existent is it?
A final observation on this section – Polanski is a strong filmmaker with a very recognizable style, much like Kubrick or Antonioni. Therefore a serious student is going to want to refer not only to Shakespeare but also to earlier films of this director such as Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby for reference.